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Arguing the same point

(article, James Berry)

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The long-awaited and sold-out "discussion" between the King of Organics and the Master of Words took place Tuesday evening on the UC Berkeley campus in a tone, tempo, and degree of earnestness that matched their earlier online dialogue.

Anybody looking for fireworks may have been disappointed, but the exchange between the two men — John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, and [/user/home/1125 "Michael Pollan"], UC Berkeley journalism professor and author of the bestselling The Omnivore's Dilemma — remained true to the character that has brought each success: Mackey, the savvy grocery operator with the ethical vision and heart (not to mention marketing smarts) to grow Whole Foods into a supermarket powerhouse, and Pollan, the incisive journalist more interested in revealing his subject than in overpowering it.

As we mentioned yesterday, the debate between the two men started with assertions in Pollan's book that, while Whole Foods' supersized approach to organics attracts customers who purchase lots of organic products, the result is not necessarily sustainable, as many of the products need to be airfreighted over long distances from large "industrial organic" farms, leaving smaller local producers out in the cold.

The effect of this, claimed Pollan, is food that isn't as fresh, takes more energy to ship, and shrinks the markets of local producers, which in turn leaves the food supply at the whim of international politics and irregulation and puts local farms at risk of being consumed by urban sprawl.

[%image pollanmackey2 caption="Pollan and Mackey have a convivial exchange." float=right]

After an introduction by Pollan, Mackey spent roughly 50 minutes alone at the podium, time he used to soften Pollan's largely hometown crowd. (Mackey might not have been joking when he said that Whole Foods may also have purchased quite a few tickets for employees to further this effort.) Mackey used this time wisely and to good effect, taking the crowd through a history of agriculture and ending with what he sees is our current state in transition from industrial to "ecological" agriculture. 

In an echo of his earlier online exchanges with Pollan, Mackey also used the opportunity to make two "major" policy announcements: The formation of a $30 million venture-capital fund to "invest in unique food artisans" so that their "artisanship may spread," and a partnership with Fair Trade and the Rainforest Alliance, in which certain Whole Foods products will be given a new "Whole Trade Guarantee" label that reflects fairness in "quality, price, labor practices, and environmental sustainability," and furthermore kicks in 1 percent of sales to their Whole Planet Foundation to fight poverty.

Playing to the crowd, Mackey showed a five-minute film depicting conditions for animals in large industrial growing operations, and used it to highlight Whole Foods' new initiative to rate food on a five-point scale that takes into consideration issues "beyond organic," including care of soil, treatment of workers, and animal welfare.

But Mackey's monologue was just a sideshow; the event that brought the crowd was the discussion with Pollan. There was so much interest, in fact, that an initial 700-seat venue sold out in three hours; the event was moved to a 2,000-seat venue, which sold out in a week.

The discussion, composed largely of questions from Pollan and answers from Mackey, had little in the way of accusation. Mackey used this second hour wisely, reinforcing his platform that Whole Foods has its ethics in the right place and lobbing zingers at what he clearly sees as his competitor: Trader Joe's, which he dissed as "privately owned by a wealthy family in Germany." Mackey's biggest problem with Trader Joe's seems to be pressure on prices, which, he says, "we're matching."

It was the issues of cost and price (and, indeed, capitalism) that brought some of the most interesting moments to the evening. Responding to the "Whole Paycheck" quip which he himself raised, Mackey said, "Whole Foods gets a lot of abuse for high prices ... but we don't have any trouble underselling the farmers' markets."

Perhaps Mackey's least comfortable moment came in response to a question from the audience: Would Whole Foods be willing to stop selling seafood altogether to prevent depletion of fish stocks? He replied that the company works to eliminate sales of fish that are at risk, but that it's "frustrating." He described a situation in which consumer demand has outpaced supply, but if Whole Foods were to stop selling the fish, customers would simply go elsewhere. The moment illustrated a compromise between ethics and business that Mackey successfully avoided most of the rest of evening.

In the end, Mackey paid homage both to Pollan's power and the results that have come of it. Recognizing a drop in Whole Foods' market cap from roughly $10 billion in May of 2006 (when The Omnivore's Dilemma was published) to less than $7 billion three months later (about where it sits today), Mackey told Pollan, "You probably cost us two billion dollars."

Alluding to changes at Whole Foods in response to the book, Mackey closed with the statement, "You've helped make Whole Foods Market a better company, Michael."

Following two hours of presentation and discussion, it was clear to me that Mackey, his ethic, and his ability to rapidly embrace and accelerate change, have been huge contributors to Whole Food's success. If Mackey made a calculated bet in deciding whether or not to risk an appearance with Pollan, he came out ahead. They both came out ahead.

p(blue). The recorded webcast of the event is here. Culinate's Opinion department also has an alternative take on the Mackey-Pollan debate.

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